Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Things are not turning out the way Democrats had hoped last November when they took control of Congress, promising to change the way things are done in Washington.

Their front-runners for the presidential nomination have been bickering with one another, raising questions about whether Democrats are ready to govern again. House Democrats are so divided over a John Murtha/Nancy Pelosi bill to micromanage our troops in Iraq that it has been shelved for lack of Democratic support. And the Senate under Majority Leader Harry Reid seems unable to produce a working consensus on anything.

Nowhere is the Democrats' divisiveness more striking than among their top presidential contenders: Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Their bitter public spat, which dominated the party's backroom buzz last week, dismayed grassroots Democrats and many independent observers who said such fierce infighting would hurt their party if it continues.

"At a time when they need to maintain the moral high ground, they're engaging in bullying and street-fighter tactics and they don't need that in February 2007. That should be reserved, once the nominee is secure, against the other side," said pollster John Zogby.

"At this stage, anything that threatens party unity or alienates Democrats or annoys swing voters can hurt. So in the case of Hillary, anything that reminds swing voters of the darker side of the Clintons hurts. Anything that suggests Obama is not Clean Gene, meaning I'm not going to run on the 'audacity of hope' but I'm going to kick you if you kick me, can hurt," Zogby said.

Ohio Democratic chairman Chris Redfern seemed similarly displeased by the spectacle of Clinton and Obama feuding this early in their party's campaign to take back the White House.

"The Democrats have momentum going their way, an unpopular president waging a misguided war, and now they're pointing fingers at each other," Redfern told me.

His advice to the front-runners: "They need to clean it up, make nice with each other and get to work."

Also, there was this pointed advice from Democratic media strategist Bud Jackson: "The Democrats in general, particularly party activists and leaders, do not want to see a knife fight between these two that results in blood all over the Democrats. We want a strong nominee coming out of this primary process, not one that is beaten and bloodied."

Media mogul David Geffen, a former Bill Clinton moneyman who is now supporting Obama, started the brawl. In an interview with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, Geffen said Hillary Clinton was an "incredibly polarizing figure" who is unelectable.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.